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Christian Biblical Studies
All Scripture references are to the New International Version, UK print version of 1984.
SALM 126 is one in the series of fifteen (120 to 134) known as the songs of ‘degrees’ or ‘ascents’. According to one explanation, the degrees refers to the fifteen steps which separated the men’s court in Solomon’s temple from the women’s. Here the Levites would stand to chant this and other psalms. Some authorities believe this was one of the psalms to be sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for the great feasts. That is, to go to Jerusalem was to ascend. (A similar expression was once common in England, when one would go up to London (the more important place), even from northern counties (less important places.)
To put Psalm 126 into context it is necessary to understand a little of the history of the period, beginning with Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion of Judaea seventy or so years prior to the composition of this celebratory song. We will also draw from it lessons applicable to the Christian life.
Nebuchadnezzar had subjugated King Jehoiakim to tributary status and — Jehoiakim proving refractory in this regard — a few years later confiscated the monarchy entirely when he dethroned and enslaved Zedekiah (the last king Judah would have) and carted him off to Babylon, the capital. Nebuchadnezzar also transported the population wholesale to Babylon, leaving the land practically devoid of a Jewish presence. His armies pillaged Jerusalem and stole the sacred vessels of the Temple, conveying them to his house of idols in Babylon.
This subjugation, captivity, and forced migration of Jews (along with people from other conquered nations), had been prophesied by Jeremiah when he declared that because of the Jews’ rebellions against their covenant God, ‘this whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon for seventy years’ (Jer. 25: 9-13).
According to Daniel, himself a prisoner at Babylon, it was revealed to the vain Nebuchadnezzar that the times and tides of history are in God’s hands, not man’s. Nations may come and go, empires rise and fall, but Jehovah is always and ever in control (Dan. 4: 34-37). Sure enough, the Babylonian empire was some years later routed by the Persian empire, at the head of which was Cyrus. Friendly to the Jews, he issued a decree permitting them to return to Jerusalem (Ezra 1: 1-4). According to some authorities Psalm 126 may have been composed by Haggai, Zechariah or Ezra, all of whom were intimately associated with the post-exilic events (Ezra 6: 14). It is interesting to note that in 1950, 120,000 Jews were airlifted out of Iraq by the Israeli government under Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, a name chosen in recognition of the original return of the Jewish people from Babylon.
The story of Nebuchadnezzar’s sacking of Jerusalem, his rounding up of the captives, and the marvellous deliverance under Cyrus is neatly recorded in 2 Chron. 36: 5-23; the account will reward the careful reader. It is this deliverance and its subsequent events which provide the immediate setting for Psalm 126, a song of rejoicing, in which the exiled Jews (of Judaea) are the principal focus, because to them were entrusted the laws and promises of Jehovah (Rom. 3: 1, 2).
The psalmist likens the startling deliverance to the sudden waking from a dream, though ‘nightmare’ would perhaps be a more apt description. But not everyone wanted to go back to Jerusalem. Those who had been assimilated into the heathen culture were comfy and so stayed behind. For the thousands who did return, the first order of business was to rebuild the Temple, which was in a pathetic state, its timbers rotting. So too, the city walls, the stones of which had suffered from lack of maintenance, and many of which had probably been raided by foreigners and carried off for building materials.
The land was desolate, as was the spirit and mood of the people who surveyed the mess. No question about it: they would have to start over. Cyrus smoothed the way by returning the paraphernalia of the Temple which Nebuchadnezzar had swiped. Cyrus supplied funds from his own treasury to finance the Jews’ enterprise. Later on, even his successor, Artaxerxes (Longimanus), commanded that his provinces round about Jerusalem ensure that the returnees got all the help they needed without fee (Ezra 7: 21-24 [‘without limit’, without ‘taxes, tribute or duty’]).
We may draw a rough equivalent of these events to modern Israel’s return from their captivity in metaphorical Babylon, the period when they were largely under the authority of a spectrum of secular, Muslim and Christian nations, and persecuted as ‘Christ-killers’ or jealously reviled for their industry. In the nineteenth century, especially from about 1878 on, the fate of the Jewish people attracted the patronage of Great Britain, then the seat of the world’s foremost empire, whose Reformation history and love of the English Bible inclined its sympathies towards them. The economic and political interests of the British aligned with the overall welfare of the Jewish people. Cyrus-like, the Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour issued the Declaration of 1917, which provided for a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people. The British Mandate of 1923 provided the framework for the foundations (walls) of Jewish independence to be laid down. Agricultural co-operatives dating back to the early 1900s —the kevutzah and kibbutz — managed and run by Jewish settlers, eventually made the desert bloom as the rose. The formal establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948 was thus the culmination of about seventy years of effort involving big-power politics, religious and secular Zionism, two world wars, and Hitler’s shocking brutality towards the Jews in the Holocaust.
After the 1939-45 war a blend of pity, guilt and horror at what had been done to the Jewish people caused nations who otherwise would not have been kindly disposed towards Jews to endorse the nascent Jewish state. As the principal architect of their sufferings, Germany was obliged to pay reparations (Shilumim, tribute) to Israel. At present, most of the countries which make up the United Nations still give lip-service support to the ‘notion’ of Israel and many of them have enacted laws against blatant acts of anti-Semitism. However, we should not be surprised if this etiquette lurches sooner rather than later towards open hostility to Jews in general and Israel in particular.
The beneficial, supportive treatment of the Jews by both the Persian and British empires were, therefore, extraordinary developments supervised by Israel’s God, who always overrules the affairs of men, and who will elevate his people to the highest rank in due course. Then ‘Jacob’ will awaken fully from his nightmare.
The LORD had not forgotten them after all, despite their long sojourn in a pagan land. Though ancient Israel — like the Israel of 1948 — was not itself much of a force to be reckoned with, their God was, ‘for the eye of their God’ watches over the Jews (Ezra 5: 5). When the troubles of this world have passed, and Israel is exalted as the chief nation in the earth, it will be said by all the peoples, the Gentiles, ‘ “The LORD has done great things for them”, and “Come, let us go up to the mountain [kingdom] of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. . . . He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.’ See Isa. 2: 1-5.
How often we, in our individual Christian life, have fallen into our own Babylonian-type captivity, through carelessness, wilful sin and poor decisions. Desolated by our fleshly ways and our selfishness, we may spend long years in isolation from the full favour of God’s face, discontented and unhappy, craving deliverance and a return to the ‘joys of salvation’ (Psa. 51: 12). Our spiritual home is our own particular ‘Zion’ — that is, a right relationship with the Lord. In contrite spirit we weep when we recall the better days, when our love for the Lord was all-important and our zeal was fresh and alive (Psa. 137: 1): ‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.’ Our inner distress is itself an eloquent prayer of repentance, and because of it the Lord delivers us and reinstates us in our longed-for environment. Our first order of business then is to rebuild the temple of our hearts and minds, and rededicate ourselves to his will and godly living — consecrating anew, and additionally shoring up our spiritual defences lest we are invaded again.
The Negev desert environment of the south, which even today covers about two-thirds of modern Israel, would have been familiar to our psalmist. Existence there would have been precarious. Where water did flow it was a welcome relief, a lifesaver. And in the parched passages through which we ourselves often walk in our Christian life, we long for the cooling and refreshing Word, the life-enhancing assurances of which restore our faith and refresh our spirits.
5. Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.
Our path of right-doing is often strewn with tears of sorrow, especially when we are rebuffed or persecuted because of our preaching or our attempts at godly living. Or perhaps it is our sins which get in the way of our companionship with the Lord, discouraging us and blocking out the light of his face. Nonetheless, salvation is progressive, often consisting of small victories, and persistent determination will at length lead to joy and a deepening of our relationship with Christ and the Father. Nothing is more thrilling for the Christian than to recognise that he or she is drawing closer day by day to Christlikeness.
6. He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.
Sowing seed for future crops, though a chore made easier and less risky today by machinery and seed technology, nonetheless calls for patient waiting. The analogy suggests the distress and anxieties felt by those who were, like Daniel, hostages in the ungodly environment of Babylon, and who pined for their homeland and God’s favour. Someone once remarked that ‘God does not pay all his bills on a Thursday’ — that is, his schedule is not ours and we cannot predict when he will do this or that, only that he will do what he promises. So patient endurance is called for, in our ordinary business of life, but especially in our religious life (Rev. 13: 10; ‘patient endurance and faith . . . of the saints’).
In the wider view, after the fall in Eden the entire human family was exiled from God’s favour and held hostage to sin and death and the predations of Satan. But in due time they will ‘return’, with songs of joy, to a kingdom of righteousness, the original intention of Eden. Christ Jesus is the ransom for all, ‘the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world’ (1 John 2: 2). The rejoicing, when it comes, will be not only for our own personal deliverance but also for the deliverance of all humanity from the trials and tribulations which they have experienced under the Permission of Evil. ‘[T]he ransomed of the LORD will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away’ (Isa. 35: 10).
June 2015. Author asserts the usual rights, except that you are free to reproduce this article without express permission. Please acknowledge the source.